Two elephants in long grass in black and white
Colour,  Friendly Friday,  Photographic techniques

Two ways: black and white or colour?

There is only one way to see things, until someone shows us how to look at them with different eyes.

Pablo Picasso

A couple of weeks ago I shared some thoughts about photo editing in my Friendly Friday: Smoke and Mirrors post. This week Amanda has set us the challenge of sharing photos that show things in two different ways, presenting me with another opportunity to share how I sometimes manipulate my original images to create different effects.

I thought I would concentrate on the effect that transforming an image from colour to black and white, or sepia, can have. Sometimes I take a photo in black and white, as I can see that it will work better that way. Often though this doesn’t occur to me until later, when I see it downloaded on my computer. Or, I simply don’t have the time to change the settings on my camera before a moment might be lost. That’s where editing comes in.

Of course the world isn’t black and white, it is full of colour. I do wonder if photography had been invented as a colour process from the start, would black and white photography ever have developed as it did, from basic recording of people and events to an art form? And would we now even consider opting for black and white over colour, if our eyes had never been ‘trained’ to see it in that way?

As it is, some photographers work solely in monochrome, others only in colour. I reckon I use the latter at least 90% of the time, but some subjects demand to be seen differently, while others are just fun to experiment with.

Seeing both ways

Here is a selection of photos in both colour and black and white or sepia edits. Which of these two ways of seeing them do you prefer?

Windswept treeWindswept tree
On Brean Down, Somerset
Two elephants in long grassTwo elephants in long grass in black and white
Elephants in the Okavango Delta
Small station buildingSmall station building in faded sepia tones
Station in rural Bulgaria
Bare room with metal bed frameBare room with metal bed frame in sepia
A room at Tuol Sleng, the genocide museum in Phnom Penh
Mountain sceneryBlack and white mountain scenery
The Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Italian hill townItalian hill town in sepia
Arpino, Italy

Thanks as always to Amanda for an inspiring Friendly Friday Photo Challenge.

20 Comments

  • Anonymous

    Another great and thought-provoking post here but I would expect nothing less from you!

    I am a great lover of monochrome, I think it is somehow more evocative I think it would have worked particularly well in the S-21 mage but that is for a specific reason. As you know, the Vietnamese photographed everything they found in monochrome and all the contemporary images we have are monochrome. I have been in that very room and, round the whole complex, it was the numerous monochrome images that I think affected me most, like the hundreds of “mugshots”, some of women holding infant children where you could just see the top of the child’s head, it is an awful place in the proper sense of the word. Did you do this with a light sepia? You know what a dunce I am with matters technological.

    Speaking of sepia, I don’t dislike it but I think it was a thig of a particular period, maybe late 19th century up until perhaps WW1. Obviously the huge catalogue of monochrome images form that conflict are what defined photography then. I reckon sepia had had it’s day by then. Even a 1920’s group or street scene or whatever would look anachronistic I feel. I do like the sepia effects of images contemporaneous with it’s popular use but I really don’t think it works with later images.

    There is much to think about here and, as and when I can get my proper laptop fixed (apparently going to the computer repairers is not “essential under current house arrest) I am stuck with this little stopgap measure and photo editing is not even an option!

    Keep up the good work.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Fergy (it is Fergy, isn’t it?) I’m glad you enjoyed this post 🙂 I take your point about sepia not being contemporary with the Pol Pot regime (and I too saw and was moved by those monochrome images of the prisoners) but somehow even when I was walking around here I saw the place in sepia. Maybe because of the paint colours used and their faded appearance? (I did it in Photoshop, btw)

  • rosalieann37

    I took a photography course (back in the days of film) where we developed and printed our own photos. And of course black and white was really the only option for the amateur. We used a red light in the darkroom because black and white film did not record red. Couldn’t do that with color film.

    If I printed color film in black and white, I had to increase the contrast to account for the fact that the red printed as a lighter grey than the actual saturation of the color would indicate. I don’t know if you switch the camera to b&w whether it records red properly or not.

    Personally I prefer color almost always. Sometimes I will use b&w to hide an errant color in the original. I had a slide photo of my dad taking movies at my sisters’ wedding and something had made purple spots on his face. I couldn’t edit them out, so I made it b&w and the purple spots disappeared. I think b&w portraits are somehow “cleaner” as they seem to erase the distracting variations in the color of the skin.

    In the tree photo at the top, the subject does work well in b&w, but I find the b&w side to be too dark. I like the Chile photo best in monochrome.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Hi Rosalie. My husband and I used to process our 35mm slide film at home, but it all had to be done inside a small tank so you couldn’t do any adjustments as you could with processing B&W in a darkroom.

      On reflection I think you’re right about the tree on Brean Down. I wanted it to look moody but I think I’ve overdone the darkness a bit 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Sandy 🙂 I quite agree with you about the Chile photo, it really brings out the cloud formations doesn’t it? For me the Cambodian one was more about creating a mood that suited the sombre nature of the place but if it’s helped you see more then I’m pleased about that!

      • SandyL

        I agree with you on the Cambodian photo Sarah. The features exposed give it visual clarity and the monochrome treatment paints the somber mood

  • TheRamblingWombat

    That’s a great feature you have used to let the reader change from monochrome to colour. I think the elephant picture is especially good in monochrome. A couple of question …..You state that you sometimes take pictures in black and white. What is the advantage in doing this over and above just using the b&w feature in a photo editor later ? That way you would have have to change settings. Also I know black and white photos can be converted to film … we see photos taken in B&W when colour was not an option converted. Is it easy (and cheap) to do ? If not that would be a disadvantage in taking B&W these days, dependent on your answer to my first question.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Albert 🙂 Amanda, who set the challenge, recommended the image compare block. I’d experimented with it a bit but not really got the best out of it until now 😀 I don’t know the answer to your question about converting B&W to film. I’ve never needed to convert any digital images to film, whether colour or B&W – my challenge is rather the other way around as we have a mountain of old 35mm slides!

      But in answer to your first question, if I take the photo in B&W I can see it that way through my viewfinder rather than seeing it in colour while trying to imagine what it will look like in B&W. Sometimes if there’s no rush, e.g. a landscape photo, I take one of each for insurance 😉

  • Forestwood

    You raise a very good question there about the relevance of black and white if photography was invented in colour to begin with. It may indeed be looked over. Some photos just work better in black and white, Portraits especially I feel. I like the Sepia added to the Bulgarian photo too. It ages it. The Italian photo too seems to send it back in time when you cast it in monochrome. Well done on Friendly Friday.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Amanda, for the great challenge idea, recommending the image compare block AND the lovely comments 🙂 I agree about the Italian one. My mother in law’s family came from that village and I’ve seen her photos from a visit in 1951 so I half see the place in B&W anyway!

      • Forestwood

        Wow. Such a personal connection, Sarah. The places of our youth are often seen in black and white or sepia in our minds. I guess we imagine it through an older timeframe.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          Yes – I must post more about Arpino one of these days. I have my mother in law’s photos from 1951, my own from a visit we made with her in 1987, and lots from a more recent visit my husband and I made in 2017. It’s fun to compare them – not to see how much it’s changed but how little!

          • Forestwood

            That is Italy. Change in landscape occurs slowly but that is part of its magnetism. Thank goodness one can still see many of the old buildings, that were made to last. I doubt that future generations will clamour to see steel glass and cement skyscrapers in the same way?

          • Sarah Wilkie

            I have to admit I’m an admirer of good modern architecture so I’d like to think some of our best buildings prove a draw for future generations

Do let me know what you think - I'd love to hear from you

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